I've had amazing luck with organ matters. On my first visit to Paris, I stumbled upon several amazing things, culminating with my being invited to the organ loft at St. Sulpice to observe Sophie-Veronique Cauchefer-Choplin improvising through a service. I was similarly lucky on Susan's and my visit to Paris a decade later.
In New York last year as Susan and I walked back to our hotel we passed the open doors of a church near Times Square (The Church of Saint Mary the Virgin on 46th St. between Sixth and Seventh) and I heard the unmistakable sounds of Duruflé. I dashed across the street to hear the final minute or so of the Op. 4 Veni Creator Variations. I didn't go inside at that time--it was the postlude and everyone was leaving the building--but I thought the instrument sounded very congenial for French repertoire and made a mental note to investigate the building and its organ.
It only took the passage of another year and another reminder. This past week we were back in Manhattan leading our yearly tour, and I was out wandering on a free evening. And I passed the same church again and--lo and behold--this time I heard Mendelssohn coming out the open doors. (It almost seemed like a sign!) This time I went in. It turns out a visiting organist from Washington, D.C., one Julie Vidrick Evans, was practicing for a concert to be played the next day (alas, we would be headed back to WI by then), so I stuck around for a couple hours and listened--two different Mendelssohn movements and Dupré's Op. 7 Prelude and Fugue in B Major. Ms. Evans was very accomplished, and her practicing was not to master the pieces but rather the instrument--she was trying out registrations and setting pistons, trying to make the best use of the instrument's many resources. For a listener wanting to learn about a specific organ, this is maybe better than listening to the recital itself; one can hear different stops in quick succession and see how they interact.
The organ turns out to be something considerably more than just a random instrument on a random street in a random church--I'm a little surprised I hadn't heard of it before now. In the church's dark interior it was hard to get a very clear look at the instrument. And after my eyes adjusted I was surprised at what I saw: an instrument that looked half-finished and then left that way for several decades. I thought at first it might be an early Holtkamp; the pipework was entirely exposed. But the layout of the pipes and their dull metallic composition convinced me the instrument was not intended to look this way. I really had never seen anything like it.
More astonishing than what it looked like was what it actually IS: I did some searching on my iPhone as I sat there and my jaw dropped to learn that the instrument came not from Cleveland but from the workshops of Aeolian-Skinner in 1932 as its Opus 891 (extended a decade later to become Op. 891-A). Consulting my biography of Ernest M. Skinner back at home, I learned that Op. 891-A was notorious as the first example of what became known as the "American Classic" style, a style which moved away from the blatant orchestral imitation for which the Skinner firm was known and toward a more historically-informed tonal design. Ernest M. Skinner was still at the helm of the firm which bore his name, but Op. 891-A was a product of the man who was leading what amounted to a hostile takeover of Skinner's firm, the Englishman G. Donald Harrison. Op. 891-A was a modern and innovative organ in its day--innovation of which Ernest M. Skinner rather strongly disapproved--and the instrument marked a decisive turn of the firm away from its founder.
(I love that despite the arguments about arcane details, any well-designed and -executed organ sounds lovely and of a piece in its setting. Skinner's instruments--say, the masterpiece in Woolsey Hall at Yale University--seem noteworthy now not for their ability to imitate a symphony orchestra, but for their tonal innovations and masterful construction and for the coherence of their designer's tonal vision. Harrison's Op. 891-A is not, as it happens, an instrument Skinner wanted his firm to build, but it strikes us as a unified and glorious instrument in its space--and, with more than a little irony, it still sounds very much like the kind of big, orchestral organ that was in vogue 80 years ago when compared to the extremes to which the historical movement went in the ensuing half century).
In fact the instrument sounds fantastic in the middling-reverberation space, and the sounds are very congenial indeed for French repertoire. It's a large instrument (93 stops on four manuals and pedal) and it fills the space very ably--the tutti is almost painful. The space itself is reverberant enough to help the organ blend, yet intimate enough to hear details and to appreciate the instrument's full dynamic range. The stoplist I saw on some church literature did not mention any 32' flue pipes on the organ, but there is a big reed on the pedal which is quite overwhelming; it was fun to hear the practicing recitalist try passages with and without the Bombarde. (The AGO site shows two 32' flues: a Salicional and a Bourdon.)
(The console, typical of Skinners of the day. This console layout is one of the enduring legacies of Ernest M. Skinner.)
Overall the sound seemed a touch lighter than with other Skinners with which I'm familiar. I'm used to an Aeolian-Skinner featuring huge scales and a very wide-open tone, and this instrument struck me as being a bit slighter in its tonal composition. (Not that anyone would call this instrument "slight." I'd be curious to know if there's anything in this or if it was just a quirk of my ear on this day.)
And so a fun discovery: my research shows the instrument to be rather famous, and one of the new breed of virtuoso organists, one Cameron Carpenter, has recorded a live recital on just the instrument. (It's downloading as I type this, and perhaps I'll have two cents' worth about it later.)
Lastly, a word on the instrument's facade. I spoke the following morning to the church's organist, a young Englishman named James Kennerly, and he had a few details about the instrument's history (plus there's a great rundown of the instrument's history on the New York AGO website here, including sketches of what the intended facade was to look like). It seems no one ever intended the instrument to look as it does, but budgets were tight and what money was available was always prioritized into completing the intended specification; when the money was finally found, the instrument's looks had become something of a trademark and it was decided to leave well enough alone.
With a mechanical-action instrument, the arrangement of pipes follows the mechanics of the windchests, which route wind more or less uniformly to the individual ranks, lined up by keyboard position (though it must be said that facade pipes will often be arranged separately for aesthetic purposes, and even dummy pipes used to achieve a desired look). With an electric or electro-pneumatic action like this A-S, pipes can be put anywhere wind can be routed to them, and so it's interesting to see how an instrument is laid out--which pipes are under expression and which not. This particular organ is most unusual in having all this exposed to the audience. Walter Holtkamp's experiments with completely exposed pipework were rather controversial in their day, though a number of firms have built at least the occasional instrument with this feature. But to my knowledge Aeolian-Skinner was not one of them. And that makes it even more special and rare.
Another great entry for my organ serendipity ledger!